I rather doubt if my neighbour Mr Rusty Spears will have had time to drop a note of thanks to Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director-general of MI5, this week, although he probably should. Rusty is a traditional small-holding farmer, a man of action rather than a letter-writer. He may even have failed to see the connection between the sale of his 10-acre field, situated just outside a village, and the grim warnings about our world that are coming from distinguished people in the know, such as Ms Manningham-Buller.
The word in the village shop is that Rusty did well for himself with the sale, making around £3,000 an acre. His buyer has turned out to be something of an entrepreneur, too, as a note to potential investors, posted on the website for his company, confirms. "When large fields become available in lots of 10, 20 or 30 acres, financially well out of the reach of the general public, your finance enables us to acquire these large fields at discount prices; we then resell smaller, more manageable plots to the buying public."
It appears to be a good wheeze. In this case, the developer has divided Rusty's field into plots of one-fifth of an acre and is selling them off at a price of £3,700 each - a mark-up of over £600 per cent on what was paid for them. The local council has stated that planning permission has not been, and will not, be granted for plots on the field, but the announcement seems not to have deterred buyers. Already, six people have bought a tiny pocket of land on which they can do nothing except take an occasional picnic.
That is the way it is around here. Every week, the local press contains a new story about a planning row. Property developers have taken to ignoring anything that the local planning office might say, preferring to take a long view. The developer who bought Rusty's field quotes a speech made by John Prescott, in 1998, in which he said that four million new homes need to be built by 2016, 40 per cent of which will be on greenfield sites.
There is nothing new in the trend towards downsizing with a move to the country. As every employer in a large city will know, more and more people are opting to commute into town or even live and work away from the city.
But there is something new in the air, which has added urgency, even causing some people to invest their savings in a tiny plot of land. It is fear. People have recently become convinced that, if they live in a conurbation, they are putting themselves and their families on the front-line of a war of unimaginable terror, with an unseen enemy whose target is civilians and whose weapons are gas, disease and radioactivity.
Clearly our government and that of America wish us to be afraid. Major security alerts, in which attacks on airports or cities are forecast, have become a regular and alarming part of everyday life. A few daring commentators have suggested that it is sometimes convenient for a government faced with awkward questions about its foreign or defence policy to cite information, always secret, about new dangers from terrorism. A frightened populace tends to do what it is told, to accept the need for proactive measures, however unpleasant, when the alternative is apparently to put innocent lives at risk.
It is rare for the head of MI5 to make a speech as stark and alarmist as Ms Manningham-Buller did this week. "We are faced with a realistic possibility of a form of unconventional attack that could include chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN)," she said. "It is only a matter of time before a crude version of a CBRN is launched on a Western city."
Obviously, it is reassuring to know that those in government and within the intelligence business take terrorism seriously; only a fool would argue that measures like the Civil Contingencies Bill, which has just been announced, are not sensible and necessary. Clearly the threat is there - indeed, some might say that it becomes more real with every unarmed protester shot dead by American troops in Iraq.
But now that we have been reassured that those in power are on the case and told that we should be generally alert, the question prompted by these repeated and increasingly urgent warnings is this: what are we, ordinary people, supposed to do about them?
Fear of a brutal and mysterious enemy, probably of a Middle Eastern appearance, can have a profound and lasting effect on the personality of a society, on the political choices it makes, on its social and racial prejudices, on the minds of its children.
There is something odd and unsettling going on here, and one does not have to be paranoiac conspiracy theorist to suspect that there is more to this state-inspired climate of fear than meets the eye. All that is certain is that its effects have only just begun to be felt.Reuse content